China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, heaped praise on the late former president, Jiang Zemin, on Tuesday in a show of unity among the ruling elite just over a week after nationwide protests challenged Beijing’s authority.
Despite its atheism, the ruling Chinese Communist Party sends off its deceased leaders with a near-religious solemnity, and its ceremony to commemorate Mr. Jiang, who died Wednesday at 96, was no exception. Mr. Xi delivered a 51-minute eulogy for Mr. Jiang that was full of accolades while avoiding hints of any personal and political differences between the two leaders.
“We love and esteem Comrade Jiang Zemin and cherish the memory of Comrade Jiang Zemin, because he devoted his heart and soul and his energies all his life to the Chinese people,” Mr. Xi said at a memorial ceremony in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
The event was attended by thousands of officials, soldiers and dignitaries, who sat in the audience, wearing masks. Even as the party sought to demonstrate solidarity within its ranks, the masks were a visual reminder of the coronavirus pandemic controls that prompted protests across China.
The demonstrations against China’s exceptionally stringent “zero Covid” policy of lockdowns erupted across the country in late November, sometimes escalating into calls for Mr. Xi and the party to step down. The Chinese government has started easing some of the pandemic measures that fanned public anger, even as coronavirus infections keep rising. Beijing said on Tuesday that it would no longer require residents to show negative Covid test results to enter supermarkets, shopping centers, the city’s main airport and other public places.
The protests were the most widespread and boldest in China since 1989, and especially an affront for Mr. Xi, who has tightened the party’s grip over society and gone to great lengths to quash dissent in his first decade in power.
At this delicate time, the funerary events for Mr. Jiang also gave Mr. Xi a chance to press the leadership and the country to rally around himself, analysts of Chinese politics said.
But the tributes for Mr. Jiang were by some measures similar to those for Deng, one of the founding revolutionaries of Communist China and a much more weighty figure in Chinese history, said Deng Yuwen, a former editor at a Communist Party newspaper who now lives in the United States. Mr. Xi’s eulogy on Tuesday was about as long as the eulogy that Mr. Jiang delivered for Deng Xiaoping when he died in 1997.
“With Jiang’s passing, it was a given that he’d receive high honors, but I guess that the level of it was a surprise to many people,” Mr. Deng said in a telephone interview. “In a sense, this is also hinting that outsiders who take to the streets will not have an opportunity to split the party leadership.”
The mourning for Mr. Jiang also implicitly signified the end of an era in Chinese politics when he and other party elders remained, even in retirement, powerful back-room players.
After Mr. Jiang relinquished his last major post, as the party’s military chairman, in 2004, his protégés perpetuated his influence on politics. Sometimes called the “Shanghai gang” after Mr. Jiang’s longtime base, they constrained his successor Hu Jintao, and helped Mr. Xi to emerge as Mr. Hu’s successor, many experts and insiders say.
But Mr. Jiang’s influence waned over the past decade, and after Mr. Hu retired in 2012, he, too, retained little sway. At a party congress in October, Mr. Xi swept aside Mr. Hu’s remaining protégés, including Premier Li Keqiang, and installed a new top leadership entirely dominated his own loyalists.
“Jiang Zemin’s passing signifies that this old-man politics is completely over,” Mr. Deng said. “It was over before now, but his passing is an even more powerful symbol of that.”
The carefully planned rituals began as soon as state media announced Mr. Jiang’s death last week. Xinhua, the main official news agency, issued a glowing tribute to Mr. Jiang. Chinese news websites and major newspapers switched their color to a mournful monochrome. In Shanghai, where Mr. Jiang died, a motorcade escorted his body to an airport, where it was flown to Beijing.
Since then, party newspapers have published tributes to Mr. Jiang. They have highlighted his role in shoring up the party after the military crushed pro-democracy protests based at Tiananmen Square in 1989. They praised Mr. Jiang for pressing ahead with China’s market-driven reforms and with accelerating the modernization of the military.
The mourning culminated on Monday with a funeral attended by the leaders and Mr. Jiang’s family. Chinese state television showed Mr. Xi and other officials — retired and current — walking in a slow, reverent circle around Mr. Jiang’s open cask, offering condolences to Mr. Jiang’s widow, Wang Yeping, and bowing three times in front of his body.
Mr. Hu, the retired leader, also circled the casket, accompanied by an aide who steadied him. At the party congress in October, Mr. Hu was abruptly escorted off the stage — an exit that set off wild speculation that Mr. Xi was purging the former leader in a dramatic display of his power. (Chinese state media later reported that Mr. Hu was unwell.)
Later on Monday, soldiers and carefully controlled crowds wearing black lined the boulevard on which the hearse carrying Mr. Jiang’s body drove to the Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery in western Beijing.
For many Chinese, the sadness at Mr. Jiang’s death was heartfelt.
Mr. Jiang was at times a hard-line leader, especially when he launched a crackdown in 1999 on the Falun Gong, a spiritual movement that the party saw as a threat to its power. But many in China, especially entrepreneurs and liberal intellectuals, remember him more for pressing forward with market changes, securing China’s entry into the World Trade Organization and tolerating more open debate about political change than is possible now.
“In his appreciation for reform and opening up, his determination to keep up with the tide of the times, his well-honed political skills and tactics, and his respect for the trend toward greater social diversity — and the way he brought all these factors together — he surpassed his predecessors,” said Xiao Gongqin, a historian in Shanghai who recalled meeting Mr. Jiang in 1987.
Mr. Xi, in his eulogy, sought to praise Mr. Jiang’s achievements without letting them undercut his own record.
Party leaders remember that in 1989 student protesters galvanized to mourn the sudden death of Hu Yaobang, an ousted party general secretary, who the protesters said had been unfairly treated by Deng Xiaoping and other elders.
Mr. Xi seemed determined to allow no suspicions that he had disrespected Mr. Jiang, but he also presented Mr. Jiang as a forerunner of many of Mr. Xi’s own policies to strengthen China against external and domestic threats.
In the early 1990s, “world socialism suffered serious setbacks, and some Western countries imposed so-called ‘sanctions’ on China,” Mr. Xi said. Mr. Jiang, he continued, had managed to steady the economy while reinforcing ideological discipline, and “resolutely defending our country’s independence, dignity, security and stability.”
Mr. Xi also praised Mr. Jiang for stepping down from his last major post in 2004, after 15 years as a central leader, saying that the move showed the late president’s “wise foresight.”
But Mr. Xi, 69, seems unlikely to follow Mr. Jiang’s example. After a decade in power, he has started a third five-year term as party leader, and has no likely successor waiting in the wings, implying he could stay on for at least another decade.
Joy Dong contributed reporting.